By Julissa Martinez
Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR)
My mother migrated to the United States in 1994 at the age of twenty-eight de la hermosa isla de la República Dominicana. She was the second youngest of 15 siblings from the village of Juncalito, Calaverna in the Cibao region of the Dominican Republic. Calaverna is a tiny campo made up of dirt roads, surrounded by one colmado, a church and bunch of small wooden houses.
Living very poorly, my mother didn’t continue going to school after finishing the eighth grade. Being one of many kids, my mother had to stay back at home to assist my grandmother with chores around the house and to find a way to help support the rest of the family financially. The disadvantage of having to take care of her family completely prevented my mother’s ability to get an education. All she ever wanted was to give back to her family in need because growing they never had much. Shoes, clothing, water and medicine were all luxuries for my mother and her family.
Before she was born, five of her siblings of the ages between a couple months and five, passed away due to sickness and the inability to obtain the resources needed to take care of them. She considers herself lucky to be alive because she could have easily gone through the same things her siblings did. These are the things my mother constantly reminds my brother and I because she wants us to understand that although her family never had anything, she still continued to fight for a better life.
Growing up my mother never talked about her status in the U.S. It was a taboo conversation because her excuse was “tú eres muy joven y no vas a entender.” She didn’t think I’d understand her experiences because I was too young. I grew up being oblivious to what being undocumented meant or what it looked like. It wasn’t until I was in middle school that I began to realize how different we were.
I remember my friends always bragging about their parents being teachers, and working in offices and highly paid jobs. I remember being asked by one of my teachers in school about my parents’ occupation and being completely embarrassed by their response. After telling them my mother worked as a babysitter and my father worked as a mechanic I was told that their occupations weren’t considered real jobs. I felt belittled and devalued because my family wasn’t considered good enough simply because their occupations didn’t live up to what society considers to be the idea of the American Dream. But, being the fearless leader she was she did everything a mother could to support for her family.
My mother has been in the U.S. for twenty-three years. Nineteen of those years, she was undocumented. Many may assume that because she was undocumented she might describe her lived experience in the U.S. as “living in the shadows” but she wouldn’t describe it that way. Strangely, she would say she lived a normal life. She came to the Unites States for reasons shared by many immigrants today, for a better opportunity, or as she laughed as she said she came to this country pensando que los Estados Unidos me iba a resolver los problemas — “thinking the United States would solve my problems.” My mother feared being deported, but didn’t let that dominate her life. She didn’t fear authority figures because she followed the law and never made herself stand out in any way to get herself deported. There was only one thing she feared more than being deported and that was the inability to put food on the table.
Undocumented immigrants in the United States lack the privilege of being able to work because they don’t have the right to work documents. My mother lacked the ability to find a stable job but she didn’t let that discourage her. While in the U.S. she worked many jobs, all which paid her less than $200 a week. With that money, she had to pay bills, dress and feed her, myself and my brother. Her jobs varied from working in a costume making factory where she would sew costumes, making about $100 a week. She worked in this factory for about seven years and was laid off in 2002.
Afterwards, she started working as a baby sitter at home which she did for about nine years. At times my mother was making a maximum of $200 which for us was a lot of money. There were times where she had no children at all to babysit leaving us with no income. During those times my mother resorted to selling Dominican-style flavored ice that she would make at home, selling them for a dollar apiece at the park. My mother feared more the instability than being deported because she never wanted my brother and I to ever miss a meal simply because we couldn’t afford it.
About 3.4% of the U.S. population are undocumented immigrants which is roughly about 11 million individuals. As my mother expressed, one of her biggest fears while she was undocumented was the inability to put food on the table. There are many individuals in the U.S. who have the same fears who aren’t undocumented immigrants.The government today spends most of its funding on military expenses. About 1% of governmental funding goes to food and agriculture because clearly food isn’t important in the United States and people don’t need to eat.
Today one in eight Americans, which is about 41.2 million people, are food insecure which means they lack access to sufficient nutritious foods. As a child when my mother and I lacked money for groceries she resorted to food banks that would require us to commute by train for about an hour just for access to food. Food banks are typically stocks of food free of charge for people in need. Food insecurity is an important issue in our country in which we should dedicate more attention too because about one in six individuals in the U.S. face hunger. Individuals should not experience the inability to have access to basic necessities like food. The United States, being one of the top economies in the world, we sure do forget how to feed our people.
I am a child of an immigrant, Latina, queer, and a first-generation student. Like my mom, I do what I can for her and my family. I would like to provide my mother with everything she has ever dreamt of and be able to give her the better life she was seeking when she came here in 1994. Society might say my mother didn’t live up to the idea of the American Dream but I would beg to differ. My mother devoted her life to herself and after I was born she made it her mission to raise me to be just as fearless as her so I can take on the world in a different way than she could. She worked so hard no matter the circumstances and never let anyone discourage her and her ability to do what she wanted in order for her family’s well-being.
I wouldn’t call it the American Dream, I guess I would say it’s just a dream. She dreamt of providing her family with everything she lacked growing up in order for my brother and I to one day be successful. Given the fact that in 2019 I, her first child, will be receiving a bachelor’s degree, something my mother never thought was possible given our circumstances, is finally becoming a dream come true. Everything she ever worked for is finally making sense after all. This was just a glimpse of mine and my mother’s story but we are not the only ones. Today, my mother is no longer an undocumented immigrant and is currently working towards getting her citizenship.